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Luck, Timing and Prop. 13

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    NEWSLETTERS

    If politics is a matter of luck and timing, a look back at Proposition 13 (also on his watch) might be instructive as Gov. Jerry Brown tries to save his proposed tax initiative.

    In terms of luck, Brown appears to have had a run of the bad kind lately, just as he’s trying to sell Californians on Proposition 30, his tax initiative on the November ballot.

    But timing also gives him an opening to recoup.
     
    Voter anger and anxiety helped pass Prop. 13, the famous property tax initiative, during Brown's first tenure in 1978, but could stymie Prop. 30 this year.

    The vote on Prop. 13 took place in June, and during much of the winter and early spring, polls showed that the California electorate was about evenly split.

    Then in May, the L.A. County assessor announced hefty increases in property assessments.

    It was bad news for homeowners, but good luck for Prop. 13 proponents.

    Voter anger, particularly in the state’s largest county, erupted and the initiative’s opponents had little time to recover before the election.
     
    Prop. 13 passed by nearly a two-to-one margin—helped by a surge in support from L.A. County voters.

    Fast forward to now.
     
    In the space of one week, two events occurred which threaten to complicate the Governor’s efforts to persuade voters to approve the “temporary” taxes he says are necessary to confront California’s fiscal problems.
     
    First, $54 million was recently discovered lying around the state’s Department of Parks and Recreation—at a time when Brown’s administration had been painting a dire picture of the park system’s fiscal future, threatening mass closings and nearly begging for private contributions to keep some parks open.

    The Los Angeles Times reported that it was not clear “whether mismanagement or deliberate deceit led to the concealment of the funds.” But it’s a distinction that doesn’t matter.

    What does matter is that the parks scandal aggravates the already pervasive public cynicism about the need to raise taxes.
     
    Second, recently released legislative payroll records showed that last year California lawmakers gave raises to more than 1,000 employees--smack in the middle of a state fiscal crisis that has prompted deep budget cuts and salary cutbacks for other state workers.

    “It’s an outrage,” anti-tax advocate Lew Uhler said, “that they did this when the governor is asking voters to approve a tax initiative because he says we can’t pay our bills.”

    Support for Brown’s tax initiative was already thin when news of hidden parks money and public employee raises came out.

    In a Field poll conducted in May, just 52% of voters said would back the measure -- a margin of support that many say is too slim to hold up come election day.

    But unlike the vote on Prop.13, which came right after L.A. County’s assessment jolt, Prop. 30 is not on the ballot until November.

    That means proponents have about 3 months to recover.

    Can they do it?

    Already, in response to public and media outcries, the state senate leadership has announced a freeze on staffers’ pay (starting after their new raises have kicked in.)

    Brown has ordered an audit of the Parks Department and has asked the state’s attorney general to investigate whether any laws were broken.

    To be sure, it’s not just a matter of timing.

    As tax expert David Doerr has observed, “The clash over Prop. 13 was more than a debate about alternative approaches to providing property tax relief. It had ideological overtones about the size and structure of government.”

    Similarly, the fight over Prop.30 is more than a debate over how to ease the state’s fiscal woes.

    It, too, has ideological overtones—and they’re also about the size and role of government.

    And at least in part, its outcome will depend—as Prop. 13’s did—on political luck ... and timing.

    Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a Senior Fellow at the USC Price School of Public Policy and the political analyst for NBC4.

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